The Chicago Cubs and 'The Headshrinker': An Early Foray into Sports Psychology
This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.
The 1937 season had been frustrating for the Chicago Cubs. After a slow start, they had climbed their way through the National League standings, taking over first place on June 15. They maintained a lead over the second-place New York Giants for all but one day of the next 10 weeks. By August 3 the Cubs’ lead had stretched to a season-high seven games.
Two weeks later, however, true to their snake-bitten history, the Cubs’ hopes of a World Series appearance began to crumble. A five-game losing streak starting August 14 reduced their lead over the Giants to just two games. Another bad run in which the club lost nine of twelve between August 25 and September 6 dropped Chicago into second place, three games behind the Giants. The Cubs never recovered and finished the season in exactly that position. The American League champion New York Yankees outscored the Giants in the World Series 21–3 in the first three games and wrapped up the title in five.
Much of the Cubs’ frustration with the 1937 finish came from the feeling that they had unfinished business with the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers had swept the Cubs in the 1932 Series (the one in which Babe Ruth is reputed to have “called his shot” off Cubs’ starting pitcher Charlie Root). The Cubs didn’t return to the Series until 1935, but by then Ruth was gone and the Detroit Tigers won the American League pennant. Detroit went on to edge the Cubs in a six-game Series. The Yankees returned to the Series in 1936 and 1937, but both times the Cubs fell short of the NL crown, which was taken by the Giants. The Cubs needed something extra to push them over the top.
Philip Knight Wrigley had run the Cubs since his father William’s death in 1932. The younger Wrigley had earned a reputation for progressive thinking as the head of his family’s chewing gum empire, bringing in new technologies and even drawing on scientific research to establish the putatively healthful effects of gum chewing.1 These apparent interests in science and technology were, of course, as much a part of Wrigley’s marketing strategy as they were intended to actually improve the quality of the product.
In addition to cultivating the image of being a progressive business leader, Wrigley was known as a bit of a crank. One year, for instance, he hired an “Evil Eye” to attend games to “put the whammy” on opposing teams. So, when he hatched the idea to bring in a university psychologist to work with the Cubs, no one was sure whether Wrigley’s scientific side or his more instinctive “outré” dynamic was actually at work.
After the 1937 season ended, Wrigley contacted Coleman Roberts Griffith, a psychologist working at the University of Illinois. Griffith had been studying the psychological aspects of sport since the late 1910s2 and had completed his Ph.D. at Illinois in 1920. His doctoral research had been on the vestibular system of the white rat. He had raised the animals entirely on a spinning wheel to see what effect this might have on the development of the organs in the ear responsible for one’s sense of balance.
Immediately after he graduated, Illinois hired him as an instructor and soon promoted him to professor. Research on rat balance, however, was not Griffith’s first love. As an undergraduate student at Greenville College in southern Illinois, he had played baseball and other varsity sports. During his graduate studies he had also struck up working relationships with Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke (one of many credited with developing the forward pass) and athletic director John Griffith (no relation), who in 1922 was named first Commissioner of the Big Ten collegiate athletic conference, which he would lead formore than two decades.
In 1918, Coleman Griffith started working with athletes, measuring their reaction times to see how they correlated with on-field performance, among other things. In 1921 he gave his first public talk on the psychology of athletics. The next year, the New York Times took notice of his work. In 1923 he taught the first U.S. college course on psychology and athletics and, the year after that, started a correspondence with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (and, later, other college coaches) about how they handled their players.
In 1925 Griffith published his first journal article on the mental aspects of athletic competition. That same year, University of Illinois offered him more than a thousand square feet of research space in a newly built sports complex. There he founded America’s first laboratory dedicated specifically to the physiological and psychological study of athletics. Over the next few years, Griffith published two books on the topic (Griffith, 1926, 1928) and eight articles in John Griffith’s Athletic Journal. In 1932, however, the university’s Board of Governors decided to close Griffith’s laboratory, ostensibly for budgetary reasons related to the Great Depression.3 In exchange for his lab, Griffith was given an administrative position heading up the Office for Institutional Research, which collected internal data on matters such as teacher-student ratios.
For the next five years, it looked as though Griffith’s pioneering foray into the psychology of athletics was at an end. But unexpectedly, in fall 1937, Wrigley came calling. He asked Griffith to bring his unique expertise to the Cubs. Griffith asked for and received a generous budget (over $1,500, which today is equal to about $20,000) to establish a laboratory specifically for his work with the Cubs. (Of course, this was still far less than a couple of top players would have cost Wrigley.) Griffith’s equipment included a $350 chronoscope to measure reaction times down to the thousandth of a second as well as a setup to record moving pictures at high speed (so that the actions of players could be watched in slow motion).4 Griffith had learned high-speed film photography back in his days of observing rats growing up on spinning wheels. Griffith also hired an assistant, John E. Sterrett, who had earned a Master’s degree in physical education at the University of Iowa.
In March 1938, Griffith and Sterrett headed off with the Cubs to spring training on Santa Catalina Island off the California coast. Griffith issued the first of what would be sixteen short reports to Wrigley in March.5 Entitled, “The Psychological Point of View,” Griffith suggested that everyone, including a baseball manager, is a psychologist because of their need to, as he put it, “handle men.” Griffith seems to have gotten along well with the players, but Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, was not in much of a mood to be cajoled by a “headshrinker,” as he once termed Griffith.
Grimm had reached the majors as a player in 1916 and had spent the last 12 years of his playing career with the Cubs. He had managed the team since 1932. In short, Grimm had plenty of baseball experience and felt little use for this eggheaded interloper from Urbana.
Just a week into the regular season Sterrett wrote Griffith, then back at school, that Grimm was discouraging the players from cooperating with the psychologists. The Cubs quickly settled into their customary place—second behind the Giants—and were still there by late June.
Griffith ignored Grimm’s animosity as well as he could, issuing four more reports during May. They argued (1) that a better regular training regimen would improve the players’ performance, (2) that batting practice should be organized around full at-bats to practice how to approach various ball-strike counts, (3) that a newly acquired skill must be practiced at full speed repeatedly in order to be useful, and (4) that a number of “achievement tests” should be constructed to assess players’ speed, strength, coordination, accuracy, and “visual judgment.” None of these recommendations were implemented.
Despite pushing their way into first place for three days in the first week of June, the Cubs then lost nine of eleven games to drop back into second. On June 24 they fell to third place. A day later, Grimm announced that players heretofore were no longer allowed to watch the films Griffith and Sterrett were making of their play.
That action seems to have provoked Griffith to abandon the detached professional demeanor he had exhibited thus far. On July 1 he issued a highly critical report that denounced the spring training sessions as having been “aimless, disorganized, and unproductive.” Only 47.8 minutes per day, he declared, had been spent on practice “effective for the playing of baseball.”
The Cubs’ situation was, in the meantime, becoming dire. They lost six in a row between July 4 and 12, dropping them into fourth place, 8 1⁄2 games behind the first-place Giants. In the midst of the slide, on July 10, Griffith filed two more reports, one of which suggested that Grimm did not understand how to instill the “will to win” in his players. Although the Cubs moved into third place with a seven game winning streak in mid-July, Grimm’s time at the helm was coming to a close. On July 20, Wrigley replaced him as manager with future Hall-of-Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett. It is unclear what effect, if any, Griffith’s reports had on Wrigley’s decision to fire Grimm, but there is little doubt that Griffith, for one, was glad to be rid of him.
At first, Hartnett’s arrival seemed to signal a new day for Griffith and his research. Hartnett met with him nearly every day to discuss instruction. Sterrett wrote Griffith, “I thought I enjoyed the confidence of the players one hundred percent, but it was only one-tenth of what I am getting now.” Griffith issued five more reports in August and September but, despite improved relations superficially, none of Griffith’s recommendations was put into action. The Cubs, meanwhile, remained mired in third or fourth place throughout August.
September, however, saw a remarkable turnaround. Back in mid-July, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who hadn’t won an NL championship since 1927, had moved past the Giants into first place. Chicago, meanwhile, won six in a row beginning in the first week of September, including two wins over the league-leading Pirates, to claw their way into second past their rivals from New York. Still in second on September 27, but riding a seven-game winning streak, the Cubs hosted the Pirates for the first of a three-game set that would likely decide the pennant.
The Cubs won the first game to pull within a half-game of the Pirates. In the second game, with light fading fast in the bottom of the ninth, player-manager Hartnett hit the famed “Homer in the Gloamin’” to win, pushing the Cubs into first place for the first time since June 7. The next day they won the final game against Pittsburgh as well.
Chicago captured just one of the final series of the season, a four-gamer against the St. Louis Cardinals, and tied another, but this was enough to squeeze out the National League pennant.
The Cubs met the Yankees in the World Series, but their long-awaited revenge was not to be. Chicago was swept in four games, the New Yorkers outscoring them 22–9. On the train coming home, Hartnett is said to have threatened to trade the entire team during the offseason (Hartnett himself had managed only one hit).
After viewing Hartnett’s leadership at close range over two months, Griffith’s opinion of him cooled considerably. In his year-end General Report to Wrigley, he wrote that Hartnett “was not at all a smart man… Not a teacher nor would he have the ability to adapt himself to any other style of training and coaching but that with which he had been familiar throughout his playing career.”
Even if Wrigley had been inclined to replace Hartnett during the off-season, the player-manager’s heroics in the late-season series against Pittsburgh endeared him to fans. Firing him would have been deeply unpopular.
In spite of it all, Wrigley retained Griffith for another season, though in a reduced capacity. The psychologist submitted reports on the performances of nine individual players in February and March of 1939. Most interestingly, he predicted, incorrectly, that young Phil Cavarretta would not amount to much (he eventually was a three-time All Star and the 1945 NL MVP). Griffith wrote four short reports about the team during 1939, but things did not improve much for him. In a June report Griffith wrote that “as far as the team and its management is [sic] concerned, we have met not only with failure but with a large amount of suspicion and distrust.” There was to be no repeat of the team’s 1938 turnaround: the Cubs sat in third place for most of the season and finally finished fourth. Griffith continued to blame Hartnett for the team’s failure: “The center of the whole problem is Hartnett…. Hartnett is a man who must satisfy his ego at all costs.”
Despite the poor showing, and Griffith’s judgment, Wrigley retained Hartnett as manager for the 1940 season as well. Griffith wrote only one report during that season. In it, he recommended that Wrigley cut all the players’ salaries and make their pay dependent on performance. It seems that Griffith had become just another disgruntled fan.
Griffith’s relationship with the Cubs ended after the season. Back at Illinois, he was promoted to Provost in 1944, a position he held until 1953. He retired from his professorial post in 1962 and died in 1966, just as the new discipline of Sport Psychology, of which he is now often regarded as the “father,” came into being.
The Cubs fired Hartnett after the 1940 season, and the veteran played his last season, 1941, as a backup catcher for the New York Giants. The Cubs did not return to the World Series until 1945, when, after re-hiring Grimm as manager, they lost to the Tigers four games to three. The Cubs have not, of course, been back to the World Series since.
Although Griffith’s experience with the Cubs was not particularly successful, it appears to mark the first time that a professional sports team engaged an academic psychologist on a long-term basis with the purpose of helping to improve the team’s performance.
It would be some time until the next chapter. In 1950, the St. Louis Browns hired a hypnotist named David Tracy. The Browns didn’t do any better as a result, but Tracy, who was more showman than academic, wrote a book about the experience.6 With the emergence of sports psychology as an academic discipline in the 1960s, baseball slowly opened up to some of the possibilities. Now, of course, every team has a sports psychologist on staff.
CHRISTOPHER D. GREEN is a professor in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto. He is the co-editor (with Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.) of "Psychology Gets into the Game: Sport, Mind, and Behavior, 1880–1960" (University of Nebraska Press, 2009). He can be contacted at email@example.com.
- Angle, P. M. Philip K. Wrigley: A memoir of a modest man. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1975.
- Belliveau, A. R. Micromotion study: The role of visual culture in developing a psychology of management, 1912–1916. Master’s Thesis. Department of Psychology. York University. Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2011.
- Anonymous, “Chewing gum is a war material.” Fortune, 27, 98–100, 122, 124, 126, 130, 136, January 1943.
- Golenbock, P. Wrigleyville: A magical history tour of the Chicago Cubs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
- Green, C. D. Psychology strikes out: Coleman Griffith and the Chicago Cubs. History of Psychology, 6, 267-283, 2003.
- Green, C. D. Coleman Griffith: “Adopted” father of sport psychology. In L. Benjamin, D. Dewsbury, & M. Wertheimer (Eds.). Portraits of pioneers in psychology (vol. 6). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association & Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.
- Griffith, C. R. Psychology and its relation to athletic competition. American Physical Education Review, 30, 193–199, 1925.
- Griffith, C. R. The psychology of coaching: A study of coaching methods from the point of psychology. New York: Scribner’s, 1926.
- Griffith, C. R. Psychology and athletics: A general survey for athletes and coaches. New York: Scribner’s, 1928.
- Kornspan, A. S. & MacCracken, M. J. The use of psychology in professional baseball: The pioneering work of David F. Tracy. Nine, A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, 11, 36–43, 2003.
- Veeck, B. Veeck—as in Wreck. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962, 40–46)
- 1. Golenbock (1996, p. 266) claimed that Wrigley commissioned Columbia University psychologist Harry Hollingworth to write the book The Psycho-Dynamics of Chewing (1939). This is not correct; Wrigley’s competitors at Beech-Nut commissioned Hollingworth’s monograph. (Thanks to Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. of Texas A&M University for pointing this out.) Wrigley was happy, nevertheless, to cite this study in his efforts to convince the U.S. Army to include gum as a standard part of its field rations (see Anonymous, 1943, p. 126).
- 2. A more detailed account of Griffith’s life and career can be found in my biographical chapter on him (Green, 2006). Evidentiary archival citations can be found there as well. A more detailed account of his work with the Cubs can be found in (Green, 2003)
- 3. It has also been suggested that his research program had lost the confidence of coach Zuppke. This is difficult to confirm, but it is interesting to note that an unfinished and unpublished manuscript on psychology and football, co-authored by Griffith and Zuppke, is in the Griffith collection in the University of Illinois archives.
- 4. Griffith was not the first to use film to record the movements of baseball players. Industrial researcher Frank Gilbreth had filmed baseball players for Brown University and for the New York Giants in the late 1910s, but this was more of a publicity stunt, aimed at promoting his work filming factory workers to improve efficiency, rather than a serious study of athletes (see Belliveau, 2011, pp. 17, 76-78, 143).
- 5. The short reports, along with a 183-page end-of-season General Report, are located in the University of Illinois Archives. There are also copies at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library along with a number of reports on individual players. Thanks to Robert T. Chapel of the University of Illinois and Tim Wiles of the Hall of Fame for their kind assistance.
- 6. See Kornspan & MacCracken (2009). Tracy’s 1951 book was titled Psychologist at Bat.